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Our Views: For a change, vote

You want to improve how government works? Ballot box is still the best way

POSTED: November 6, 2011 12:16 a.m.

Seems a lot of folks out there want to change our government.

From the far left and far right, they protest, rally, fume and fuss over how government doesn't do enough of this, or does too much of that, claiming we need to "WAKE UP!" before our country slides down the tubes and goes to hell in a hand basket.

The "Occupy" protesters in New York, Atlanta and other cities march through downtowns wearing masks, toting signs and chanting opposition to what they perceive as the greedy practices of corporate America, and a political climate they feel has enabled a disparity in wealth.

A perspective from the other side came last week when four men of Social Security age in Northeast Georgia were charged with hatching a plot to harm government officials and others with conventional and bacterial weapons. As bizarre as it may sound, such militia groups have sympathizers who share their distaste for an oppressive federal government they feel violates their constitutional freedoms. And more than a few believe taking up arms is a viable option.

These two polar extremes of our political discourse have something in common: Both approaches to changing the nation's perceived ails is misguided and ineffective. Carrying a sign or throwing a grenade isn't going to alter public policy. One is passive, the other destructive. Real change takes positive action.

Like going to the polls Tuesday to vote.

This year's elections involve city council and school board races, some special sales tax and Sunday alcohol sales referendums, and a few legislative special elections to fill open seats. Granted, the races don't carry the juice of last year's gubernatorial race or next year's presidential election. But the candidates and items on the ballots will have a direct effect on their communities and the lives of residents. Choosing wisely is a better way of making a difference than camp-ins or castor beans.

The person you help to elect to a city council might be the deciding vote in a change to your taxes, neighborhood zoning or public safety. School board members will decide school policies that will have an impact on your children's future. (As an example, look at the problems some metro Atlanta school districts have had with hapless boards that managed to lose accreditation for their systems.)

In the open General Assembly seats, your elected representative will take your interests and issues to Atlanta and join like-minded leaders to lay the path for our state's economic, educational, transportation and environmental needs. It doesn't carry the same buzz as a presidential race, but it matters.

But showing up is half the battle. Making a difference starts with residents who care enough to learn about the issues and the candidates and make informed choices at the polls on or before Election Day.

Sadly, apathy seems to be prevalent this year. Voter interest appears weak, and turnout is likely to be sparse. Some cities expect 100 or fewer voters on Tuesday. One town, Gillsville, has struggled to find candidates to fill its open council posts.

That's democracy where a few decide for the many. Not good.

Of course, it doesn't help that in Flowery Branch, voters have to visit two different sites to vote in city and state House races. Making voting more inconvenient is just asking for a tiny turnout; a better solution needs to be devised for such split ballots in the future.

Too few of us are involved in local governments, and that's a shame. Recently, Oakwood held a public hearing early one evening to get feedback on its budget for 2012. No one showed up. So city leaders will move forward with their spending plan without feedback from the people it will affect. Yet rest assured, some still will criticize decisions made despite their lack of involvement.

It's the same with the occupiers and militias: They'd rather scream and shout about government failures rather than do something within their power to change it.

Many will claim their one little vote doesn't matter, especially when candidates on the ballot don't seem to offer much of a choice. That's a valid concern.

But your vote never stands alone; when others share your values and goals, it carries great power. And when more people take time to vote — and, just as importantly, hold candidates accountable after the election — they will draw more and better people into public office. Low turnouts and tepid interest keep incumbents in office with little opposition, increasing the gulf between government and the people.

We can bridge that gap with our active participation. The more involved we are, the more responsive our government leaders will be to our needs and desires.

But it starts with us. An online poll at gainesvilletimes.com asking readers if they plan to vote showed that nearly 30 percent of those with contested races in their communities aren't interested or haven't registered. Yet one imagines those folks becoming quite involved when they learn their taxes are going up, a road is being planned through their backyard or their local parks or libraries are closing.

Of course, no one should vote just to vote. If you haven't kept up with the issues and candidates, your choice won't be based on the knowledge you need to elect the right people for the jobs they seek. We hope everyone will choose to do so in the future.One vote does matter. Do your part for your nation, state and community and go cast one Tuesday.



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